Education

Strings attached to federal money could oust three Durham principals

Posted November 19, 2010 5:59 p.m. EST
Updated November 19, 2010 6:31 p.m. EST

— Three Durham Public Schools principals could lose their jobs in a push for federal money, including one who was held up six months ago as an example of success.

The school district wants $4.5 million in "Race to the Top" money to help three schools that are considered low-performing. Students at W. G. Pearson Elementary School and Lowe's Grove Middle School would get iPads to help them learn, and teams of specialists would work with teachers to help them help students. Meanwhile, Neal Middle School plans to convert to a magnet school and adopt a science- and math-based curriculum.

One of the requirements to get the money, however, is replacing the principal at each school.

District officials have spoken with the three principals about the requirements of the federal program's "school transformation model," spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said. She declined to say whether the three would be offered other jobs in the district.

"I understand the finances behind the decision," said Kathy Kirkpatrick, principal at Lowe's Grove Middle.

Last spring, Kirkpatrick became the face of the district's efforts to boost student achievement. She testified before Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who oversees a lawsuit to ensure that students across North Carolina receive a quality education, and the judge said later that he was impressed with the work Kirkpatrick had done.

Mindi Schedel, who teaches sixth-grade math at Lowe's Grove Middle, said Kirkpatrick has dramatically improved the school during her three years there.

"She's made a huge difference not only in our grades, but also the culture of the school," Schedel said. "Lowe's Grove is on the verge of doing really wonderful things."

Eighth-grade language arts teacher Andrea Fortwendl said she feels "like we're trading in leadership for iPads."

"She's being asked to step down because of a model, not because she's ineffective as a leader," Fortwendl said of Kirkpatrick.

The district chose the transformation model, Stalberte said, because administrators thought it would cause the least disruption among teachers, students and their families.

"Other models require either closing or restarting a school," she said.

Durham's plan still needs state approval, but the three principals would be out by next fall if the district moves ahead with the Race to the Top effort.

Lowe's Grove Middle teachers say losing their principal would erode much of the progress they've made in recent years, and they plan to fight to keep her.

"You are asking someone to come in who doesn’t know the faculty, who doesn’t know the growth we’ve made,” Fortwendl said.

"I’m afraid that any kind of change at this point, especially with leadership that has been so instrumental, will derail us and get us off track,” Schedel said.